6 Questions to Help You Choose the Right POV

6 Questions to Help You Choose the Right POV

6 Questions to Help You Choose the Right POVStories are defined by their narrators. Narrating characters implicitly tell us whose story this is. More than that, they determine which facets of plot and theme will be emphasized. How do they do this?  By also determining which elements will be eliminated or sidelined. In short, figuring out how to choose the right POV for your story is one of the most crucial decisions you will make.

As with all crucial decisions, I find I save myself the most stress and labor when I do my best to choose the right POV in the outlining stage, before I ever start writing the first draft. Most of the time, the main POV—the protagonist’s—is obvious. But not always.

Ask These 6 Questions to Choose the Right POV for Your Story

The above reasons are why I use the following six questions to help me narrow down and verify my choices.

1. Who are your possibilities for narrators?

The first step is to take a look at your list of candidates. Technically, every character offers the potential for a narrator, but likely only a few will rise to the top of the list. Your protagonist, your antagonist, and one or two minor characters who figure heavily in subplots might all catch your attention. Or perhaps there’s just a shadowy secondary character who fascinates you.

2. Could you eliminate the POV of any of these characters without dramatically affecting the story?

Once you’ve collected your dream list of possible narrators, it’s time to get realistic. The key to the successful use of POV is control. This is true whether you’re using first-person, third-person, or omniscient. Writing a story that offers a POV for every single character isn’t likely to work as well as a story that has carefully selected only the most necessary POVs.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook software logo 228 250This choice isn’t just about providing POVs to characters who are present at interesting events. Even more importantly, it’s about choosing POVs that will frame the overall narrative and provide commentary on the theme, in order to create a cohesive and resonant effect in readers’ minds.

POV - Outlining Your Novel Workbook software

All of these questions (and much more) are included in the Outlining Your Novel Workbook software.

3. Which character has the most at stake?

If you’re uncertain whether some of your possible narrators qualify as prime candidates for POVs, the first question to ask is how much each person has at stake to lose in the overall conflict. The mother tracking down her kidnapped son is going to offer a much more interesting perspective than the beat cop who wrote down her initial statement.

Your protagonist should, of course, be the character with the most at stake. (And, if not, you might be telling the wrong person’s story.) But this question provides an easy litmus test for determining the comparative worth of minor POVs. Are they as interesting as the protagonist’s, thanks to their high stakes? If not, they probably don’t deserve to be given POVs.

4. In what person will you tell this story?

Once you’ve chosen which characters will lend their perspectives to your story, it’s time to figure out which “person” will best serve their narratives.

The most common choices are:

  • THIRD-PERSON POV

The third-person POV tells the story in the third-person, referring to all the characters with the third-person pronouns “he” and “she.” This can be a POV of varying depth, either skimming the surface of the POV character’s consciousness, or digging down deep.

  • FIRST-PERSON POV

In a first-person POV, the protagonist is telling the story directly to readers and referring to himself by the first-person pronouns “I” or “me.” This is, perforce, a deep POV.

  • OMNISCIENT POV

The omniscient POV tells its story from the perspective of a distant narrator who is able to observe the thoughts and motives of all the characters. (I have written about the challenges and limitations of the omniscient POV here.)

5. In what tense will you tell this story?

A decision closely related to the previous one is that of tense. Will these characters be better served by telling their stories in past or present tense?

  • Past tense 

Tells the story as if it has already happened, using past-tense verbs, such as: “She left the police station and decided to go after her son herself.”

  • Present tense

Tells the story as if it is playing out in real time, using present-tense verbs, such as: “She leaves the police station and decides to go after her son herself.”

6. Which narrators have the most interesting voices?

Finally, it’s time for the most important test of all: your characters need to audition their voices on the page. A fantastic narrative voice can be the difference between an okay book and an excellent one. Test all of your potential narrators in a one- to three-paragraph stretch of narrative.

Do their voices all sound the same—or does one pop out as obviously the most interesting? Which is the easiest and most fun for you to write?

With any luck, the answers to this question will line up with your discoveries in the previous questions—and you’ll know exactly which character(s) is best suited to bringing your story to life in the first draft.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How did you choose the POV for your current story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’ve always drawn on intuition to help my choice of POV — that and experimentation. In my current manuscript, I’m using limited third past, but in the second draft I realized something about it that in the first was arbitrary, but now has become useful: the voice reflects not that of the 20-year-old protagonist, but someone far wiser, almost as though this is someone other than that present character telling his story in third person. This awareness led me to figure out the ending, told in omniscient present tense, where we meet the protagonist after all the turmoil is over, and realize exactly who the narrator is, one of those great meta moments that for me gave me insight (and excitement) to jump right into the third draft and deepen the voice in this POV, with the end in mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Intuition and experimentation – two great approaches to POV! The one balances out the other. 🙂

  2. Good article.

    There’s one point I had a slightly different view on. That’s the 3rd person omniscient. Well, maybe it’s not really a different view so much as a different way of wording it.

    I write almost exclusively omniscient, but as my writing’s progressed, I’ve tended toward a deeper and deeper connection with my characters’ POVs. At this point, my writing is starting to seem fairly close to a deep third person, in my opinion. I even make the mistake of slipping into deep 3rd person for a sentence or two on rare occasions

    But I’m still confident I’m writing omniscient because I’m not sharing character’s /exact/ thoughts and I’m able to switch between character POVs if I want to. I can also make distant narrator comments that a normal 3rd person author couldn’t do.

    I guess really we have the exact same definition, I just tend to stress that the line between omniscient and 3rd person isn’t so broad as a lot of people think. The narrator will always be “distant” to some degree in omniscient, but I don’t think it has to to /seem/ distant, if that makes sense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Omniscient is slippery (which is why one of the reasons it’s often treated as problematic). It’s just one of those things where “you know it when you see it.” 😉

  3. I do love the “most at stake” rule. It’s such a good reminder for what the best stories ought to be.

    It’s amazing how often I see stories where the protagonist is deliberately overshadowed by other “supporting” characters who have a unique backstory, a complex tangle of beliefs and a goal that drives them to the edge… while the “hero” is downright generic.

    The way I see it, if other characters have more to lose and more to confuse them than the viewpoint character, it ought to be because their stories have come further than his, and this story is the hero *becoming* someone with more drive and conflicts to sort out than any of the people he reacts to.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Writers often have so much invested in their protags that they aren’t willing (or just forget) to take risks with them. Minor characters often feel much more freeing, which is why they often end up much more interesting.

  4. I switch narrators in my book, depending on who has the best story to tell at the time. I had to make sure to label who it was, so my readers wouldn’t get lost.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, consistently done, multiple POVs shouldn’t be a problem for confusing readers.

  5. My first set of beta-readers made me aware that the character I’d chosen for protagonist and sole POV was not a good choice. This person in my mind had the most to lose (his life), but his personality among other things kept readers from wanting to root for him. The beta-readers understood him better at the end of the novel, but as it was written, they didn’t think they would have stayed with the story to see the end. So my first choice for protagonist had to go.

    I erred then by having too many POV characters (seven or eight), which my second set of beta-readers let me know. I’d gone from one extreme to the other. 🙁

    In my current revision, I have three POV characters who all have a high stake in the story, and for whom I have raised the stakes in the rewrite. I went with characters who the beta-readers said they liked the best, plus one of my favorite secondary characters, who I’ve now decided to make the protagonist.

    The original protagonist is still in the story, and still has high stakes. I think readers will be more sympathetic towards him now, seeing him through the eyes of other characters, instead of viewing him through his own, depressing perspective.

    With the three POV characters, I write them on a “rotating schedule.” Each chapter is written from one character’s perspective, and I cycle through the POV characters in order, so that each character gets a chapter before any of them gets another chapter. The chapter lengths vary a good deal because sometimes there’s not as much to write for a given POV character when it comes her turn, but so far there has always been something for each character that moves the story forward. There are also a few times when the scenes pertain to two of the POV characters, and in those cases I write the scene from the perspective of the POV character whose emotions I want to explore in that scene, who isn’t always the person whose head is on the proverbial chopping block…

    …if you have a parent and child in a story, and the child’s life is threatened, but the child doesn’t realize the danger, the child may have the most at stake physically, but the parent who realizes the danger will have the higher emotional stakes.

    It will still be a while before I can send this version of the story to beta-readers, but I’m eager to reach that point so I can get a feel for the wisdom of my decisions for this revision.

    Thanks as always for a great post, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Excellent point about the parent/child stakes, with the emotionally aware person being the more powerful POV.

  6. directornoah says:

    Another very good article. I’m usually quite adapt at deciding POV for my stories, as I generally have a good intuition of whose character viewpoint would work best, and add the most tension and interest in a chapter.
    For my current WIP, I plan to tell it in third-person, and entirely from the protagonist’s POV. However, your post has made me reevaluate my strategy.
    Although my protagonist is an interesting, attractive character, my antagonist and supporting character have really fascinating backstories, and are really dark, complex people.
    The problem is, my story is a mystery novel, and I’m worried that if I switch viewpoints to the villians, it might give away some of their hidden motives, and also lose some suspense and mystery for the readers.

    I’m also wondering whether I can show the other character’s conflicts, motives and involved characteristics and emotions, through their detailed actions and expressions, as seen by the protagonist. In other words, the characters could portray and express themselves in actions, with the protagonist acting as the eyes and ears of the reader, without delving into their minds and own POV.
    Any thoughts on this? Thanks. 😊

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As a matter of fact, I have a post that might be helpful: Are Your Multiple POVs Killing Your Story’s Suspense?.

    • In a trunk mystery I showed the suspects’ POV as well as the POV of detective. In this instance I had a girl forced to return to her old home, where her father was murdered when she was little. Initially all she knows is that all of the adults who were in the house that fateful day had their reasons to kill him. The girl has the unpleasant task of figuring out what those reasons were. She’s being threatened by an unseen enemy who can’t be stopped unless the girl figures out whodunit.

      The approach I took is that the killer felt justified in killing the father, so he didn’t obsess over it. Instead he’s dwelling on a new problem caused by the arrival of the girl. He has a whole other secret that he wonders if she’s going to find out about.

      The reader is focused on what *that* secret might be. All of the other suspects are focused on how the girl’s arrival is stirring up horrible memories or new troubles for them.

      Your suspects also might not be hyper-focused on the victim. They could be looking forward to their new lives now that the victim is gone, or, annoyed that even in death the victim is causing trouble for them.

      The key might be to give the suspects something else to be legitimately dominant in their thoughts, something that could be a plausible red herring. If you can make the reader hope that a particular suspect isn’t the killer that can increase suspense, too.

      Elizabeth George is pretty good at showing the killer’s POV without alerting you that this is the killer. She writes the Inspector Lynley series if you’re interested.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        That’s actually really smart! It gives the antag a solid forward goal as well.

        • Thank you! I was sad to put that story away, but at the time I did the genre it fell into (New Adult) didn’t exist. I didn’t see a way to publish a story about an 18-year-old college student dealing with her father’s murder instead of the prom, and including the POV of 40-something year-old adults as well.

          One day I may return to it…

  7. Another thing I consider when choosing POV is backstory and other information. In my WIP, I’m planning to use the one character’s POV purely because he works for the antagonistic force, and as such I will be able to provide quite a bit more perspective to the events in the plot, even though the character is minor. His knowledge enables me to give the readers knowledge.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes a minor antagonist can be the best choice for antagonistic POV–you get to spy on the antag without totally giving away his movements or plans.

  8. Christa says:

    Tough one! I tried doing 2 first-person ones, with protag and antag in alternating chapters, but I had to switch to third person limited in the antag chapters, because I just couldn’t do the story of the third main character justice. I also tried to eliminate the antag POV, but he is just so deliciously evil (think evil Errol Flynn)! Had to keep his snark in there too, so now I have 3 POV’s. Hope it works, fingers crossed!

  9. Ms. Albina says:

    In my two novellas, I am doing the first person for Jewel in one and in the other first person for Leilani. I like the past tense the past in writing in these, Okay, Jewel in one story who is not Leilani’s grandma yet and in the other, she is Leilani’s grandma.

    My stories are fantasy with no vampires and werewolves. I am sick of seeing those in stores, enough already.

    Do you write in past or present tense with your writing?

  10. Well, my feel is that present tense is about emotional tension, very high stakes and rapid development of the plot – just because action is happening before our own eyes. So, I tend to think it is more suitable for short stories.

    Well, I started writing my novel on pure intuition, and then a friend introduced me to your website.

    As it happened, I have 3 protagonists, who represent Flat Ark, Positive change ark and Negative change ark, the Flat ark protagonist triggering changes in the other two once they meet. They are of different age, social standing, life experience and values. So, it just happened that I write the first part of the story from the Flat Ark POV, middle from Positive Change ark POV (he is in best position to investigate the past mystery, confront the present and amend wrongs), and the third part from Negative Change ark POV ( he is one step short of a Positive, but fails his final test), who is left to pick up the pieces.

    So, it happens that I have a continuous story, where POVs of three major do not interwine until the very last. Feasible? Or not? If feasible, are there any pitfalls?

    Thanks a lot for your articles, I appreciate them much.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The biggest pitfall with this approach is that readers might like one of the POVs much better than the others–and be frustrated when they’re pulled away from their favorite. So just be brilliant in all three POVs, and you’ll be fine. 🙂

  11. I always do past tense and usually third-person omniscient. However, I have one story that from the very beginning insisted on being first-person, and really I can’t imagine it working as well any other way. So my rule–if you could even call it that–is to use whatever the story needs and thus to be flexible on POV.

    Now if only my characters would cooperate.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a good rule! Ultimately, it’s the only rule in fiction that truly matters.

  12. Generally, I use third person for novel-length projects, and first person for short stories. Either way, I pretty much always use past tense.

    I haven’t seen too many books use future tense, but it would be interesting if someone could make it work well. I assume that would be very challenging.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The biggest challenge would be the clunkiness of the verbs: “She would be going now.” :p

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